Tuesday, September 29, 2009

More Internet blocks ahead of National Day

With only two days until National Day and the start of a week long holiday in celebration of 60 years since the founding of the People's Republic of China, the security noose around Beijing has tightened further still. The physical presence is very obvious. There is a police officer on virtually every street corner in the centre of Beijing. Police and SWAT teams are stationed outside many subway stations armed with QBZ-95 assault rifles and holstered QSZ-92 automatic pistols. Some have even been sporting razor sharp bayonets on their rifles. At other key locations armoured personnel carriers belonging to China's elite Snow Wolf Commando Unit are parked up. Surrounding them are armed personnel wearing balaclavas. Quite what their remit is remains unclear, though regular police can be seen carrying out identity paper checks and spot checks on cars and lorries.

Beyond the show of force, there are less obvious restrictions and controls. Beijingers have been told to stay inside their homes on National Day if they live on the parade route. Hotels along or near the route have been fully booked, mostly by government officials. Others have had to shut. Bars and businesses have also been told to close their doors. On the day there will be a virtual lock-down of central Beijing where, unless one has the right paperwork, there will be no crossing of certain checkpoints.

Kite flying has been forbidden as is the releasing of balloons or even pigeons. It is not known what measures might be taken against any bird that might stray too close to the ceremony which is due to start at around 10 am Beijing time on Thursday, October 1.

More subtle but just as far reaching are tighter controls on the Internet. Since March one major service after another has been unavailable except through a proxy or VPN [Virtual Private Network] based outside China. Many of Google's services have fallen victim to the blocks with YouTube, Picasa Web, Blogger and even Google News services affected. But over the last month those restrictions have become much tighter. Freegate and Ultrasurf, programs that have enabled people to jump over the so-called Great Firewall have themselves been blocked.

A new 'emergency' version of Freegate became available this week, though for many trying to obtain a copy will prove difficult in itself. It appears that it is all an effort to hide any bad news in the lead up to National Day. Stabbings in central Beijing with left 2 dead and at least a dozen injured was not widely reported. And soon after an American living in Beijing posted pictures of last week's explosion at a restaurant on Twitpic, the site which had not previously been blocked, became unavailable.

On Monday this week the Internet was extremely slow in Beijing, despite a supposed 4Mb/s service. Links continually failed especially to foreign news services. While the Internet seemed relatively stable on Tuesday it appeared that yet another Google service had become a victim of Chinese government interference. Since the early hours of Tuesday Google Docs was unavailable with only the usual 'Error' message being displayed.

Twitter wasn't exactly alive with comments. After all Twitter itself is blocked unless using a proxy or one of a few gadgets that circumvent the firewall. Most comments came from Chinese Twitter users, well versed in jumping hoops around Internet censorship.

"The GFW [Great Firewall] is too tough" said one user. Others spoke of their frustration at not being able to access documents or even to work properly. While it appears Gmail and iGoogle are unaffected, there is continued uncertainty as to how reliant one can be on cloud computing in China. Using the Internet is frustrating at the best of times but if restrictions such as this continue, business will surely be affected, especially for western companies more familiar with Google and other similar services. There are work-arounds of course. Other online editing systems like Zoho offer similar services and are so far unaffected, but for how long. The blocks also appear to be sporadic with some saying they could access Google docs while for others all that was returned was an error page. 

In less than two weeks the celebrations will all be over. Maybe the restrictions will lift. But then again there are yet more 'special days' ahead. There is the Expo in Shanghai in 2010 and there will no doubt be more controversial anniversaries for the authorities to worry about. If using the Internet in China, one will probably be seeing this for a long time to come: "ERROR The requested URL could not be retrieved While trying to retrieve the URL: http:// www google com / search? The following error was encountered: Read Error The system returned: (104) Connection reset by peer An error condition occurred while reading data from the network. Please retry your request."

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